Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. — Genesis 45:4–7
Joseph had a solid reason for wanting revenge against his brothers: They planned to kill him but instead sold him into slavery and told his parents he had died. And then, to his surprise, their paths crossed again. Now he was in a position of power and authority; he could have had his brothers executed or sold as slaves. Instead, he forgave them.
Joseph understood that God had used the crime to save the lives of others (verse 5). But knowing God used the situation for good probably didn’t remove all of Joseph’s hurt and pain.
Forgiveness is necessary, but it isn’t always easy. Knowing what is and is not required of us can help us through the process of forgiving those who have wronged us.
Forgiveness requires that:
You understand what it is — Forgiveness is a decision and a promise to release a person by canceling the real debt the person has with you.¹ It’s returning to God the right to take care of justice.²
You focus on how God has forgiven you — The starting point of our willingness and ability to forgive is God’s forgiveness of our sins. Reflect on the many ways you have sinned against your Creator and then think about the price he paid so that you could be forgiven and restored. Focusing on your gratitude for what God has done in forgiving your sins often makes it easier to forgive the hurts caused by others.
You accept that it is not optional — Gratitude to God will often motivate us to forgive others. But when the hurt and pain is too deep and forgiveness seems impossible, we might need to remind ourselves that forgiving others is not optional—it’s a prerequisite for our own forgiveness. As Jesus said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14–15).
You separate your feelings from forgiveness — If you rely on your feelings to let you know when it is “time” to forgive, you might never do it. The time to forgive is always now, not when our feelings catch up or the hurt has passed.
You realize psychological relief is not the reason — Often when we forgive someone who has wronged us we will eventually feel a sense of relief or peace. While this is a welcome benefit of forgiveness, it is not the reason we forgive.
You know the initiative is on the forgiver — May we wait until someone seeks our forgiveness before we forgive them? No, we may not. Jesus expects us to forgive those who sin against us even before they request it or take responsibility for what they have done (see Mark 11:25).
You realize it is an ongoing process — We tend to want a “once and for all” forgiveness event, but Jesus reminds us that with some people or situations, we will need to forgive over and over and over again (see Matthew 18:21–22).
Forgiveness does not require that:
You forget — We can forgive without forgetting the situation that caused the debt. For instance, if someone has physically abused you in the past, you can forgive them without putting yourself into a situation where they can continue to harm you. Forgiveness might lead us to seek reconciliation, but we are not required to put ourselves in danger. As Rose Sweet says, “While God commands us to forgive others, he never told us to keep trusting those who violated our trust or even to like being around those who hurt us.”³
You necessarily have a face-to-face meeting or restoration of relationship with the offender — Aaron Sironi explains: Though we are called to forgive those who sin against us, and we must be ready and willing to do so (attitudinal forgiveness), pursuing relational reconciliation is complex and not automatic. As a general rule, if the offender has not repented, has not acknowledged the sin, and does not ask for forgiveness (transactional forgiveness), reconciliation is not warranted. The decision to reconcile is also impacted by the duration and severity of the sin involved.⁴
We forgive as an act of obedience letting God carry the burden.
¹Aaron Sironi, “From Your Heart . . . Forgive,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 26, no. 3 (2012). http://www.ccef.org/sites/default/files/journal-articles/From-Your-Heart-Forgive.pdf.
²Rose Sweet, “Why Do We Find It So Hard to Forgive?” Focus on the Family, accessed February 23, 2015, http://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/divorce-and-infidelity/forgiveness-and-restoration/forgiveness-what-it-is-and-what-it-isnt.
⁴Sironi, “From Your Heart . . . Forgive.”
Devotional drawn from the NIV Lifehacks Bible ebook.